The nurse educator shortage facing the American health care system is not secret; it’s been widely discussed in major news outlets for several years. The shortage affects health care delivery, including how many people can be treated, the quality of treatment and the cost of treatment. But beyond the obvious issue of having fewer nurses available than needed is a deeper, more fundamental problem.
There is a significant shortage of nursing educators. With a lack of faculty at nursing schools, student capacity is limited at a time when it’s desperately needed, meaning the nursing shortage, and its attendant effects on health care, will not be resolved.
The Scope of the Nurse Educator Shortage
The nation’s leading group for nursing education promotion, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), is on the forefront of this issue. They are putting forth significant public efforts and initiatives to help raise awareness and develop solutions. According to the group, there are three primary effects to consider about the nursing faculty shortage.
Perpetuating the Cycle
The most significant effect of the nursing faculty shortage is the growing trend of nursing schools turning away applicants from programs. According to a 2014 AACN study, U.S. nursing programs turned away 78,089 qualified applicants in the 2013-14 academic year. Almost two-thirds of the nursing schools who responded pointed to faculty shortages as a reason for not accepting all qualified applicants. These qualified applicants could help fix the overall nursing shortage, but a lack of faculty is stymieing the growth of the nursing population.
An Abundance of Vacancies
There are faculty roles available to potential nurse educators, but there are not enough qualified personnel available for these roles. According to the “Special Survey on Vacant Faculty Positions” released by the AACN, 56.4 percent of responding schools reported vacancies. Of these vacancies, 86.9 percent were requiring or preferring a doctorate degree. The top reasons cited for schools being unable to find faculty were a limited pool of doctorally prepared applicants (31 percent) and salaries being uncompetitive compared to other nursing roles (28.4 percent).
Decreased Ability to Offer Care
Because many nursing programs work directly with university hospitals and health centers, the faculty shortage is directly affecting how they can provide service. The Association of Academic Health Centers released a report in 2007 showing how faculty shortages are worsening their infrastructure. The survey showed that 94 percent of academic health center CEOs believe that faculty shortages are a problem, and a majority identified the issue as the most severe issue facing them.
Factors Contributing to the Faculty Shortage
What is causing the faculty shortage? While some of the problems affecting the faculty population mirror that of the overall nursing pool, there are some differences. The AACN reports that there are four major issues: the overall aging population of nursing faculty, the continued and growing wave of retirements, higher compensation in the private sector and not enough nurses available to become educators.
An Aging Faculty
In 2014, the AACN published a report that found that the average age of existing nursing faculty is increasing. The study found that the average age of a doctorally prepared nursing professor, associate professor and assistant professor is 61.3, 57.7 and 51.5 years old, respectively. For those with just a master’s degree, the average ages are 57.2, 56.8 and 51.2 years old. Older faculty are more likely to retire sooner and are less likely to move into new roles.
With the issue of aging faculty comes the increasing likeliness of their retirement. According to the journal Nursing Outlook, the average age of nurse retirement is 62.5. With the average age of all faculty at 53.5 years, the field is going to see a mass amount of retirements in the very near future. The study projected that between 2012 and 2018, the field will see the start of mass retirements nationwide.
High Competition From Other Nursing Careers
Although nursing programs are desperately trying to attract possible candidates to faculty vacancies, they simply can’t compete with the private sector. Traditional clinical nursing jobs are more lucrative and attractive to nurses. These roles are not only preventing new nurses from pursuing a role in education but are also taking away current nurse educators away from teaching. The AACN reports the average salary of a nurse practitioner is $94,050, and by contrast, a master’s-prepared faculty member earns an annual wage of $80,690. That nearly $15,000 difference in nurse educator salary prevents many nurses from considering taking jobs as educators.
How Is the Shortage Being Addressed?
Because the nursing faculty shortage is so closely related to the overall nursing shortage, many of the strategies for attacking one are intertwined with attacking the other.
However, groups like the AACN are committed to making more of the conversation about the nursing shortage about the faculty problem. Here are a few strategies being employed to improve the symptoms:
Recognizing the effect this shortage has on their education and health care systems, states are taking action to improve conditions. For example, Wisconsin announced a $3.2 million grant called the Nurses for Wisconsin initiative that seeks to provide fellowships and loan forgiveness for nurses interested in teaching in the state after graduation.
Several state groups and universities have worked with AACN to help improve access to graduate nursing programs that lead to teaching jobs. The NursingCAS program, which is a centralized application service for RN programs, now includes graduate nursing programs. This will help better meet the need for nurse faculty and maximize the educational capacity of nursing schools.
Improving Federal Funding
The American Nurses Association and the AACN have urged Congress to improve Nursing Workforce Development programs in Title VIII of the Public Health Service Act. This fund is the primary source for nursing education federal aid. By providing a significant increase in the amount of aid available, the ANA and AACN believe that it can help alleviate the financial burden of training new nurses, including nurse educators.
The AACN believes that increased involvement from minority groups may help fill the need for nursing educators. They created the Minority Nurse Faculty Scholars program in 2008 to encourage students from minority backgrounds to pursue nursing education. AACN offers several scholarships each year for students seeking both MSN degrees and doctoral programs.
Best Practices in Nursing Education
Ready to help close the nursing faculty shortage? Here are standards of best practice suggested by
the journal Clinical Simulation in Nursing:
- Terminology should be standardized and promoted consistently to encourage an equal understanding in education, practice, research and publication. Having a standardized terminology also allows for consistency regardless of the environment the student is in.
- The professional integrity of participants should be held mutually among both participants and facilitators. Clear expectations should be stated for all students, instructors and simulation participants.
- Participant objectives should be well-developed and thought out before the learning begins. These objectives should be available to all before the experience.
- Offering multiple methods of learning facilitation is key. Each teaching method meets different needs for different participants, so alternatives should be available.
- A proficient instructor is required to manage all aspects of the learning experience. Instructors have specific coursework and teachings to accompany all lessons, as well as continuing education offerings for those seeking further information.
- Debriefing, especially after simulation-based learning,
should be a regular part of the experience aimed toward
promoting reflection by students.
Growing in popularity, online learning has proved that it’s a viable option for those in need of an alternate learning style. This modality is especially ideal for nursing students who balance several responsibilities in both work and family life. Moving beyond an RN to a BSN or MSN via an online degree program increases accessibility for students, making it easier for them to achieve their goals. Here are some ways to bring the power of in-person learning to the online classroom.
Online education resource Designing for Learning offered these best practices for teaching in the digital
- Be present throughout the course. Using the communication tools including email, discussion boards and instant messaging can help create the classroom environment that gets all students involved. Instructors who are absent from discussion hurt the overall learning experience.
- Create a supportive online community through balanced dialogues among parties. Instructors should strive toward three primary dialogue patterns: faculty to student, student to student and student to resource.
- Share clear communications and work expectations for students at the start of the course. A good idea would be to explain how you will communicate throughout the course and how students should communicate with one another and you. Also list how much time students should spend on the course each week.
- Use a variety of work experiences to keep course information fresh. To develop community you should incorporate both large and small group assignments in addition to individual experiences.
- Activities should be both synchronous and asynchronous. Offer some opportunities for live chats and even a live lecture on difficult topics, as well as the traditional forum structure. Some activities may be better suited for live interactivity and others won’t be. This helps include students in different ways.
- Ask for informal feedback throughout the course to encourage dialogue and improvement. Pose questions like “How is the course going?” and “Do you have any suggestions?” Allow students to provide valuable feedback that can improve both your experience and theirs.
- Use discussions to invite questions, discussions and responses. The discussion boards are considered the online version of a face-to-face class. Because they are asynchronous, they have to be thought provoking and inviting for students to create a classroom feel.
- Provide resources, links and applications that are easily accessed from student computers. In an online course all content that isn’t digital is nonexistent for students. Find resources that are readily available for students to use throughout the course. Content that is mobile is becoming preferred.
- Customize and personalize learning in addition to providing core concept lessons. By identifying topics and ideas that interest students, the course is made more accessible and engaging, keeping students more involved.
- Plan a good closing activity for the course. In the final weeks of a course instructors should attempt to tie together lessons and drive home big ideas. This also helps alleviate the stress that often accompanies the end of a course.
How Education Can Help
Although some believe the faculty shortage, and the larger nursing shortage, is near its end, groups like the ANA and the AACN believe otherwise. The need for nurses, and those to educate them, continues to grow, and without programs to develop nurse educators, the shortage will not be addressed. Specifically, online MSN programs that are geared toward nurse educator jobs can help. These programs are designed for working nurses to take the next step in their career while still continuing to work. Upon graduation, these nurses will be prepared for their own roles as educators and can help address the shortage nursing shortage.